Cleveland Zoo Uses Videoconferencing Technology to Teach About Animals

  Tad Schoffner has some new on-the-job partners that he knows will upstage him. Schoffner can blame his employer, which deployed the mobile and wireless technology that now puts him side by side with some real animals.

Schoffner, assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, uses the zoo’s new mobile and wireless infrastructure to teach students about animals within their habitats via videoconference link.

“You can’t always guarantee [the animals] are going to do what you want, but when it works, it works great,” says Schoffner. “Even if the timing isn’t just right, it’s still a lot better than standing in a studio.”

Computerworld named the zoo’s project as the winner in the Media, Arts & Entertainment category in its annual Honors Program.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has broadcast educational programs to students through its distance learning program since 1998, using standard videoconferencing equipment housed in its Adventure Hall studio. The classroom had interesting teaching tools – a big world map, animal skulls, a model of a Komodo dragon – but it wasn’t designed to accommodate visits from the zoo’s larger residents. Presenters teaching about primates, for instance, had to rely on video, photos and PowerPoint presentations to relay their lessons. The educational staff wanted to create a more interactive experience that more closely resembled a trip to the zoo. To do that, they implemented an enterprisewide wireless infrastructure and made the videoconferencing equipment mobile.

“I taught in a room with four walls. The kids were going from one classroom into another. I wanted them to see more,” says Cathy Ryan, an education specialist in the zoo’s conservation education division. “Now we have a lot more teachable moments. We can say, ‘Take a look at that joey – it’s pushing its head out of the pouch,’ and we can zoom in on that for the kids to see.”

The Cost Hurdle

From the start, zoo leaders wanted to broadcast from the exhibits, says conservation education curator Vicki Searles, “but the technology wasn’t readily available for the price we could afford.” Cathy Ryan, education specialist in the zoo’s conservation education division.

Fast-forward to 2005. Zoo officials, seeing other Cleveland-area institutions and organizations adopt wireless tools, recognized their own chance to go wireless. To help zero in on a plan, zoo officials hired Total Systems Integration Inc. (TSI), a Galion, Ohio-based company that had helped the zoo set up its videoconferencing equipment.

TSI suggested a wireless mobile videoconferencing cart. “There aren’t too many [organizations that] do videoconferencing over a wireless network, so this is pretty unique,” says Bob Lynch, TSI’s sales and marketing director.

 The mobile cart has teleconferencing equipment from PolyCom Inc., a hospital-quality battery power supply, a Bluetooth-enabled wireless keyboard and a wireless client to connect with the network. The cart even has special wheels to handle rugged ground and a cover to protect against the elements.

The wireless videoconferencing cart was only part of what the zoo needed, though. It still required the infrastructure to transmit from that cart out on the grounds to classrooms signed up for the programs.

The zoo’s initial idea was to run copper and fiber lines, Lynch says. But implementing a standard hub-and-spoke design would require land lines from each wireless access point back to the switch – a costly proposition for the hilly, tree-covered 168-acre zoo.

Instead, the zoo settled on a newer technology, Cisco Systems Inc.’s Aironet 1510 outdoor mesh access points, which would extend real-time videoconferencing out onto the grounds without the need for additional cabling or line-of-sight access. This made it not only easier to deploy but cheaper, too. (Lynch estimates savings of tens of thousands of dollars.)

“The beauty of wireless mesh is it uses radio frequency to connect back to the wired network so you can extend the network to areas that are difficult for cable,” Lynch explains.

He points to other advantages, saying that this wireless data network is a self-healing, self-configuring system, so the zoo doesn’t need a radio frequency specialist to manage it.

“It’s scalable, so if they want to expand to different areas in the zoo, they just have to add access points,” Lynch adds.

In 2005, the zoo received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to cover the $100,000 price tag of its wireless infrastructure and the mobile teleconferencing equipment, Searles says. The grant also covered the cost of developing programming at the zoo.

At a Glance

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is a 168-acre facility in Ohio that attracted 1.2 million visitors in 2007. It has 3,000 animals from 600 species.

Project leaders: Conservation education curator Vicki Searles, Zoo Director Steve Taylor, Cleveland Zoological Society Executive Director Liz Fowler, Cleveland Metroparks Commissioner William J. Ryan and Cleveland Metroparks Director Vern Hartenburg.

IT head count: The Cleveland Metroparks IT department has five full-time employees, including manager Frank Budziak, and one part-time worker. Budziak has been the point man for the zoo’s wireless mesh technology, with another worker as backup.

Return on investment: Zoo officials say they can’t assign a dollar value to the benefits of deploying the wireless mesh technology to enable mobile videoconferencing for its distance learning program. “The return is offering experiences that kids can’t get otherwise,” Searles says.

“The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo distance learning program is an outstanding example of how school systems and community organizations can work together to achieve critical education levels,” says Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who helped secure the federal grant.

Lynch says TSI did a site survey to figure out where to put the access points for wireless coverage. Still, with the zoo’s challenging topography, TSI workers had to fine-tune the system afterward, aiming and repositioning access points to maximize coverage areas.

Even today, there are limits to the coverage, Ryan says.

“It can’t go everywhere, but we’re working to that point, connecting all the dots,” she says, noting that the zoo has more dead spots in the summer, when leafy trees block access. And Ryan says high winds can knock out power on some of the equipment.

On the other hand, the infrastructure takes little in terms of maintenance, says Frank Budziak, IT manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a state organization that includes the zoo. Access points occasionally need to be repositioned, and there’s normal wear and tear — but that’s it.

A Wireless Wave

The zoo is among a growing number of institutions, particularly ones that have campus settings, that are benefitting from wireless infrastructure, says Gartner Inc. analyst Michael King.

“Increasingly, we’re finding that college campuses, zoos and other public places are enhancing either students’ learning experiences or connectivity by utilizing any number of wireless technologies,” King says. He notes that some organizations use wireless to offer self-guided audio tours to visitors, although he hasn’t seen other zoos adopt wireless videoconferencing capabilities like the Cleveland zoo has.

The zoo now has 19 access points, enabling presenters to deliver programs from the seven most popular attractions, including the primate, shark and rainforest exhibits.

Some educational programs are still broadcast from Adventure Hall, but Ryan says there’s no question that adding the wireless infrastructure has delivered significant returns.

The zoo saw a 25% increase in the number of classrooms scheduled to receive programming after the wireless implementation. From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2008, the zoo’s programming reached 171 schools (with 4,500 students) throughout Ohio and in other states, including Alabama, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.

However, because the programs are free, the increase doesn’t translate into a financial ROI.

But zoo leaders aren’t calculating returns in terms of money. The biggest benefit, Searles says, is bringing live, real-time action to children who are eager to learn. Students can interact with presenters as they interact with the animals — and that’s something that couldn’t happen even from Adventure Hall, where presenters had to use videotaped segments.

“When the kids know they’re actually seeing something live, it makes a big difference,” Searles says.

For example, Schoffner has taught classes that focus on how different animals use tools. He says students learn more when he can point to a chimp in the background who picks up a branch and strips off the leaves to make it into a digging tool.
Ted Schoffner assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“They can see the animal right there, they see it moving. It just brings the learning to life. Now they really want to learn. It’s just so exciting,” says Dessie Sanders, principal of the Michael R. White School, a K-8 school in Cleveland.

Such feedback gives officials even more incentive to expand the zoo’s wireless infrastructure, Searles says.

Already, they’re installing more access points, starting with the wolf and koala exhibits. And they’re looking at whether they can transfer their success with wireless and mobile technologies to other areas besides distance learning.

For instance, they’re looking at how they can use the infrastructure to bring new programs to visitors via their handhelds or cell phones.

Searles says she sees more possibilities in the future. She envisions a time when students will have control over the cameras at the zoo so they can zoom in or pan around to see the action that interests them the most.

“What we’d like to do,” she says, “is be able to have access from every part of the zoo.”